Patience is not a virtue that ranks highly among the many attributes of gardening expert Sarah Raven. She’s something of a donna universale, with multitasking talents including garden design, television presenting and the organised energy that enables her to produce a steady flow of books and journalism while running a successful gardening business.
Above all, however, Raven is a hands-on gardener who likes to get things done — fast. ‘It may be a bit of a sexual stereotype,’ she says, ‘but in the garden, I find women tend to be impatient, while men are happy to nurture a single tree for 10 years. For me, gardening is not about perfection; I’m willing to be more slapdash.’
Or perhaps just more effective. Raven’s undoubtedly speedy green fingers have magicked an earthly paradise out of bare soil on more than one occasion. During her early career as a florist (which she juggled alongside medical training), she reinvented a neglected patch of West London, transforming its weed-strewn borders and lacklustre lawn into an urban delight within a single season. At Perch Hill, the farm in East Sussex she shares with her husband the writer Adam Nicolson and their two daughters, the glorious garden has matured over the course of a family lifetime. But it, too, however, was initially kick-started into bloom.
‘There was no garden here at all when we first moved in,’ she says. ‘Within a summer, I’d started a small annual garden, which became the inspiration for my first book, The Cutting Garden.’
Until recently, Raven was also the chatelaine of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, whose gardens were created by her husband’s grandparents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Today, these gardens are among the most famous in the world, but in the 1930s, when Sackville-West first viewed them, they were, as she wrote, ‘crying out for rescue’. This is the sort of mission Raven relates to. ‘I can imagine them there the first summer, a huge and brilliant project in front of them. Within weeks they launched into it with gusto.’
Raven’s own love of plants was nurtured in childhood. Her father, John Raven, a Cambridge academic, was known for his work on pre-Socratic philosophy, but was also a highly respected amateur botanist. Her mother, Faith, designed the gardens at their home, Docwra’s Manor in Hertfordshire, which remain open to the public.
On weekends, Sarah and her father used to head off into the countryside in his Morris Minor, armed with ham sandwiches, to hunt for wild flowers. ‘That’s how I learnt,’ she says, ‘by picking something, bringing it home and identifying it.’
Today, she remains passionate about wild flowers — which of course ‘grow like weeds’ — but is equally emphatic about the need to balance the functional with the decorative. ‘The main thing,’ she says, ‘is not to think of a garden as merely ornamental. You want to be able to pick both flowers and food, at least to some extent.’ Her fundamentals for high-speed horticultural success are structure, pots and annuals. ‘Think of creating a garden as designing a series of rooms,’ she says. ‘Even if you only have a small space, you should divide it with some form of screening to create different moods.’ Pots of decorative herbs will bring a garden instantly to life, and beds filled with annuals, planted alongside quickly established perennials, can ease you effortlessly through the early days.
‘Be strict with yourself. At the outset, limit your selection to no more than 20 plants. Don’t worry too much about making mistakes. You can always move things later on if you do it at the right moment.’ Immediate gratification alongside long-term planning are clearly the hallmarks of the Raven recipe for success.
01 Start with perennials: Plant high-performance perennials, such as rosemary, gaura and euphorbia, which establish quickly and look good straight away.
02 Add annuals: Annuals provide immediate colour at a relatively low cost. Raven favours cosmos, penstemons and dahlias, which ‘give give instant umph’.
03 Choose your colours: Be strict about your palette. Go for bold — with a ‘Venetian’ spectrum of jewel-like ruby, topaz and amethyst — or stick to daintily pale. Be careful, however, of creating a ‘dolly mixture’.
04 Put herbs in pots: In all gardens, but particularly in town, pots are invaluable (choose different sizes, but stick to one material, such as zinc or terracotta). Use them to plant quick-growing and attractive ‘cut-and-comeagain’ herbs, such as parsley, coriander, chervil; or, in winter, cavolo nero and Swiss chard. ‘They all grow back in days,’ says Raven.
05 Create ‘rooms’: Use willow or hazel panels to screen off different areas of the garden. ‘Your aim is to build a sense of mystery, glimpsing another part of the garden through a narrow gap.’
06 Decorate panels: Interweave panels with willow (such as Salix purpurea Nancy Saunders) to form a vertical basket, or, alternatively, try an espalier pear or apple for a semi-transparent effect.
For details of Sarah Raven’s books, plants and courses, see www.sarahraven.com
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